Thursday, August 19, 2010

Schubert's song cycles

Between 1986 and 1999 I built up a considerable collection of classical music CD's (exceeding 2000 CD's in total). For various reasons I have played them a lot less in the past decade, but I am embarking on a rediscovery tour that I intend to share in this blog. In the sixth instalment, I re-examine the song cycles of Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). One of the initiators of the romantic movement, and one of my all-time favourite composers. His songs are too much to handle for a retrospect in my blog (I have over 30 CD's of them), so I focus on the three song cycles for voice and piano.

Die schoene Muellerin (op.25, D795, 1824)
My version: Protschka/Deutsch (Capriccio, 1986, 67 min)
Hard to believe that this was almost the very first song cycle composed - and by a 27 years old as well. These 20 songs on poems by Wilhelm Mueller form a satisfying cycle, depicting a young wanderer in love going from optimism to despair to suicide in the brook that is central in the story - in the best romantic tradition. Wonderful melodies, exquisite piano scores, and an arching story line to hold it all together. Highlights: they are all great, but let's say Das Wandern, Am Feierabend, Der Neugierige, Ungeduld, Mein, Die liebe Farbe, Trockne Blumen, Der Mueller und der Bach and the wonderful closing lullaby Des Baches Wiegenlied. Tenor Josef Protschka shows a natural affinity with the music, accompanied to great effect by Helmut Deutsch. One of the best song cycles ever composed. Essential, no question.

My version: Fischer-Dieskau/Brendel (Philips, 1985, 69 min)
Right from the start, this sombre and dramatic cycle is absolutely spellbinding, one of the best compositions ever regardless of genre (the wikipedia link gives a great synopsis of the story). All 24 songs, based on poems by Wilhelm Mueller, would on their own be regarded as highlights of the romantic Lieder repertoire - and the cycle is a clear example of the whole being even better than the parts. Highlights: even better than the others are Gute Nacht, Gefrorene Traenen, Erstarrung, Der Lindenbaum, Fruehlingstraum, Der Wegweiser, Das Wirtshaus, and the fabulous closer Der Leiermann. The performance is exemplary, with Fischer-Dieskau's baritone and intelligent diction being eminently suited for this music, and Brendel providing the right counterparts on the piano. Beyond essential, this is hors concours.

My version: Koningsberger/Braun (Brilliant, 2002, 65 min)
Now here is a rarity for sure - a Dutch version. Singer/songwriter Jan Rot tackled the 20 songs and provided great translations that maintain the story and still adhere to the melodies of Schubert hardly without making an artificial impression at all - a real tour de force. Baritone Maarten Koningsberger and pianist Roger Braun give an impressive reading of this unique version. If you understand Dutch, this is a highly interesting alternative, although it certainly does not displace the original - somehow German seems to be the natural language for this cycle.

My version 1: Prey/Bianconi (Denon, 1985, 51 min)
My version 2: Fassbaender/Reimann (DG, 1992, 68 min)
It is not even clear that Schubert intended this combination of songs to be a cycle, and indeed it lacks the coherence of the two Mueller cycles. The cycle leads off with seven songs based on poems by Ludwig Rellstab (sometimes an eighth is added, Herbst, D945), followed by six songs based on poems by Heinrich Heine and one based on a poem by Seidl. Although falling short of the immensely high quality of the two earlier cycles, there are many great songs here. Highlights: Kriegersahnung, Fruehlingssehnsucht, Abschied, Herbst, and Ihr Bild. The version by baritone Hermann Prey and pianist Philippe Bianconi follows the traditional lay-out (though including Herbst) in accomplished if unspectacular performances. Mezzo soprano Brigitte Fassbaender and pianist Aribert Reimann choose a different path altogether. They kick of with the Seidl song, then add four more late songs based on the same poet outside the cycle, followed by the Rellstab songs (with Herbst inserted, but next-to-last), and the Heine songs in a completely different sequence than usual, ending with what is usually the first Heine song, Der Atlas. In general, I prefer the second version, but that is also because I think Fassbaender is a far superior Lieder singer compared to Prey.

Summarizing recommendation, based on my own taste:

Hors concours: Winterreise
Essential: Die schoene Muellerin
Important: Schwanengesang
Good to have: Winterreis
Not required: none